Infernal child of circumstance
A tomorrow, I’ll borrow
Destiny, a hollow happenstance
A Denizen. Discarded by a family and society that saw no value in her. Hazy memories were all she had. A faint jawline. Emotional impressions. A heart broken by the ghosts of relatives she never knew. Larissa Shedrova sat outside the doctor’s office wrestling with these thoughts among others. It was a typical Wednesday at the Belgorod orphanage. Checkups and check-outs. At seventeen, Larissa had one year left before she aged out of Russia’s system and fended for herself with a minimal monthly stipend. She brought her braid of blonde hair over a shoulder and gave it a nervous stroke.
A motherly nurse in gray scrubs poked her head into the hallway of Building Three of the complex. “Miss Shedrova?”
Larissa glanced up.
“The doctor will see you, dear.”
Larissa followed her into the drab and sterile office. Doctor Peltrov was a young buck fresh out of Moscow Medical School. At twenty-four, his handsome features and endless blue eyes captivated most of the older female population. Putin who?
“Ah,” Peltrov spun in his chair, “Larissa. Nice to see you again.” He extended a hand to the exam table. “Please, have a seat. We’ll just go over some things in your records today.”
She sat on the edge of the table. “Thank you, sir.”
The doc chuckled. “No need for the, sir. This should be fairly routine.” He spun his pen next to his head. “Consider this an exit interview of sorts.”
She stuffed her hands between her thighs. Another cool shot of A/C hit her from the vent overhead. “Thanks.”
His fingers flew over the keyboard, pulling up her complete medical records. He leaned closer to the monitor. “Panels came back fine. No allergies.” He turned to face her. “How’s the chest murmur?”
Larissa shrugged a shoulder. “Hasn’t bothered me that much.”
Peltrov went back to his screen. “Doesn’t require any medications.” He wheeled over to her. “You’re a healthy young lady.” He lowered his sheepish eyes to the green tiling. “This next bit might seem a tad uncomfortable, but---”
Larissa spared him the embarrassment. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Ah, okay. You’re not active at all---with anyone?”
She shook her head.
“All right.” He spun around to some forms on his desk. “While I’m filling these out for you,” his pen flew through the forms like a seasoned pro, “do you have any ideas on what you want to do once you get out of here?”
“Not so much.” She fiddled with the knitted flower on her shirt. She had five shirts to her name. This one still fit.
Peltrov’s hand Zorro-ed a signature at the bottom. “There are several ways to get an education certificate. That would be a great place to start, if you ask me.”
The doc pulled a pamphlet from beside his inbox. “The Army’s always conscripting and looking for career troops.”
She took the handout.
“Might be able to take care of you.”
Larissa folded it and stuffed the pamphlet into a back pocket of her jeans. Not new ones, of course. Hand-me-downs from a donation drop last Christmas.
He finished his form and whirled around to face her. “That’s that. Any questions that you have for me?”
Her green eyes met his. “Don’t think so.”
“All right.” He popped out of his seat and ushered her to the door. “If you do think of anything, don’t hesitate to let the nurse know. I’ll make a special appointment if need be.”
Larissa hopped down and shuffled back out into the hallway. “I will.”
The clock on the wall read 3:35pm. She still had a couple of hours before dinner started. A petite girl bounded around the corner at the end of the hall. Her bouncing black curls and bright baby blues lit up Larissa’s face.
“Hey, kiddo.” Anya slung an arm around her neck. “How’d it go? Make out with him?”
Anya had been her best bud since they were both kids. Four, as Larissa’s memory served. Always boisterous, Anya had gotten them both into their share of trouble over the years.
Larissa scoffed. “Disgusting! No.”
The duo wound around the corner and in the direction of the main auditorium. Anya rubbed her button nose against Larissa’s cheek. “C’mon. You know you want that sexy man all over you.”
Larissa slapped her on the shoulder. “Gross. It was an exit interview.” She pulled the folded paper from her pocket and wagged it.
Anya snagged it out of her hand. “Oh, the Army one.” She crumpled it and tossed it into the trashcan as they passed. “I’ve got four of them.”
“I was going to read that.”
Anya spun into her path and put a hand on either shoulder. “Listen, Larissa.” She glanced around to make sure they had no eavesdroppers. “I’ve got something smokin’ planned for tonight.”
Larissa’s face sagged. “Anya.” Her voice took on a parental tone.
“No.” Anya patted a shoulder. “This one’s got something in it that you’ll want to see.”
She stepped around her rebellious friend and continued down the north wing of the building. “I’ll bet you do.”
“Seriously.” Anya caught up to her. “It could change your life.” Anya pulled her into a corner. “Aren’t you always whining about how much you want to escape this place, our lot in life?”
Larissa crossed her arms with an indignant huff.
“Come with me later tonight.” Anya smiled at a pair of passing boys. Once they had cleared the area, she lowered her voice and continued. “I got something new from a shop in town.”
“If it’s those cards...”
“The shop bought this book at an estate sale over the spring.” Anya’s eyes widened. “The lady in the shop said it’s got some powerful stuff in it.”
Larissa laughed. “You’ve been trying to magic your way out of our situation for as long as I can remember.”
“Madame Vadoma was reluctant to sell it to me in the first place.” Anya’s gaze faded.
“You didn’t.” Larissa’s mouth hung agape.
Anya tilted her head. “So, I borrowed it.”
“You stole it?” Larissa’s words hissed through clenched teeth.
Anya looked like a scorned pup. “I’ll take it back after we’re done.”
Larissa smacked her on the arm. “What’s wrong with you?”
Anya gave it right back. “You in or out, chick? I’ve got the stuff set up in our cave for this.”
Anya rubbed her shoulders in soothing strokes. “I’m sorry. I promise I won’t steal anymore.” Her blue eyes squinted. “This week.”
They fell into a fit of giggles.
Larissa draped her arms over her friend’s shoulders. “If this ends up being a waste of my time…”
“Pff!” Anya tapped the collar of her shirt. “What other monumental things you got planned tonight?” She waited while Larissa searched her mental planner. “Thought as much.” She gave Larissa’s cheek a light tap and skipped off down the hall. “You know when. You know where.”
As the evening bells rang, the other kids settled in for evening curfew. Larissa tucked her jacket under her bed covers. Footsteps echoed in the hall outside her room. They broke the bar of light under her door, strode a few paces beyond, and turned back down the hall. When the stairwell door on the opposite end whined on its hinges, Larissa threw off her covers and put on her jacket.
She slid on some socks and shoes and went to her second floor window. While the alarms on most of the complex’s doors still functioned, the ones on its windows had been defunct since the Gorbachev administration. She slid it up and leaned her torso out over the sill. Tucked between a pipe and the wall was her trusty escape hatch. Larissa fetched the rolled bundle of rope from its hiding spot and unfurled it to the ground. Her rope ladder had taken three meticulous months and lots of sneaking around to construct, but it had served her well for nine years.
“Thanks again, friend.” She climbed out onto her contraption.
Once she had descended to the bottom, she tucked her ladder back in behind the wide pipe. They’ll never know you’re there. All of the lights on the south wing of the building were out except those in its hallways and stairwells. Larissa jogged to a cluster of birches and ducked behind them. A lean silhouette patrolled the first level corridor. The night watchman had his face buried in the warm glow of his cell. She peeked over the edge of a branch, watching him wander into an office and flop down in a chair with his back to her.
Larissa turned and made a break for the woods and hills behind the orphanage. Owls called from their perches high in the boughs. Fireflies twinkled en route around the peaceful grove. She stopped and took it in for a moment. My favorite spot. One of the perks to following Anya on her wild-haired adventures was another opportunity to come out here. Bathing in the solitude and silence of nature.
She shut her eyes. “I could live out here.”
A hand slapped her on the back. “Me, too.”
“God, Anya!” Larissa bent over, gasping. “Don’t do that.”
Anya’s sneakers padded over fallen branches and up the hill. “You coming?”
Larissa ambled after her. On the other side of the hill, nestled in between a brook and the forest, was their secret cave. A slab of limestone served as its portico.
Anya skipped down the trail toward the babbling stream. “C’mon.” She ducked under the limestone and motioned for Larissa to join her.
Larissa surveyed the shallow hollow. The new moon left the heavens an empty canvas for the thousands of stars to flaunt their beauty. “This better be worth it.”
“Come on, already!” Her friend’s voice bounced around inside the cavern. Anya struck something and a ruddy glow emanated from its depths. “There! Now, we can get started. See?”
Larissa trotted down into the cave. Anya sat with her legs crossed on the opposite side of the healthy fire. She pulled a book from her backpack. Firelight caught its dark oiled cover.
“Have a seat,” Anya said. “I don’t bite.”
Larissa tossed up her hands and joined her friend at the lapping flames. “Why not?”
Anya cracked the book and flipped through its yellowed pages.
Larissa sat up. “What is that thing?”
Anya kept scanning its contents. “A spell book.” She held it up for Larissa to see. “It was written and used by a line of powerful gypsy practitioners.”
Larissa flopped back down. “Practitioners of what?”
“Witchcraft, of course.” Anya’s fingers flipped to the desired page. “Madame Vadoma said the family had passed down oral traditions for summoning powerful energies.” She patted the pages. “They wrote them all down in here.”
Larissa tossed a twig into the burning branches. “So, what’s your scheme tonight?”
Anya tapped the book with an index finger. “This one.” She set it on the ground and went to work etching out a figure in the dirt.
Larissa crept closer. “That’s not the pentagram we normally use.”
Anya’s bangs wagged. “Nine points. More energy in these.”
Larissa traced the circle with her finger. “Energy.”
“Yup.” Anya returned to her backpack and came back with nine candles. “The five elementals and the four cardinal directions.” She passed two of the black candles to Larissa.
“Okay.” Larissa tilted their wicks to the flames until they ignited. “What are we conjuring up?”
Anya lit her other candles and placed them on each of the star’s nine points. “Something that will grant us our deepest desires.” She studied the page in her book and extended her arms around the star. “Take my hands.”
Larissa flopped her hands out and completed their circle.
“Now, close your eyes.”
Larissa’s nose twitched. “If you’re pulling a prank on me---”
“I’m not,” Anya said. “Now, shush.”
A low hum grew from Anya’s abdomen and filled the earthen space. She spoke a string of words in a tongue Larissa hadn’t heard before.
“What the hell?” Anya seemed disappointed.
Larissa opened her eyes.
Her friend’s eyes searched the cave. “Nothing?”
“What did you expect?” Larissa drew a circle in the dirt next to her knee.
Anya buried her nose in the pages of her book. “Something. Anything!”
Their weak fire surged for a moment, hissing and shooting sparks into the dark, then subsided. A voice grew around them, bouncing off the rocks.
Who has summoned me?
Both girls scooted away from the star and searched the cave for the source of the hollow voice. Anya shrieked and held a digit at the wall opposite the fire. Larissa found their visitor. A towering shadow bent in their wavering light. Wisps of inky smoke slithered around its feet.
Anya inched closer to it. “I suppose I did.”
The shadowy form drifted across the wall in her direction.
What is it you seek?
Anya’s voice hardened. “We seek what gifts you choose to bestow upon us.”
Anya sat on her knees. “Yes. My friend,” she glanced to Larissa, “seeks to break free from her station in life. Poverty. Loneliness.”
Anya looked to Larissa and back to the apparition. “Your full power.”
The shifting form floated back between the girls.
Place your hand within the flames.
Larissa’s wide stare begged her best friend to reconsider.
“C’mon.” Anya inched her hand toward the lapping fire.
Larissa shook her head. “Please, don’t make me do this.”
The shadow waited motionless on the wall.
“I don’t know how much longer it’ll be here.” Anya’s hand hovered over the fire. “On three.”
Larissa’s shaking hand extended over the fire.
“One.” Anya swallowed hard. “Two.” She closed her eyes.
Larissa followed suit.
Larissa expected a searing pain, a burning sensation of some kind. She giggled. The ethereal energy tickled her palm and sent a warming sensation throughout her body. Then, a jolt of numbing pain accompanied by a blast of wind. She curled over on her side. Anya had been blown back against the wall and lay unconscious.
So it is done!
Another short burst of fire and sparks, and the mysterious form melted into the low-lying shadows on the wall.
“Anya?” She crawled over the star to her friend’s side. “Ann?”
Larissa shook Anya’s arm. “Anya. Come on.” Another rattle. “Wake up.”
Anya moaned and rolled onto her back. “What happened?”
Larissa helped her sit up. “Something.” She looked around. “Not sure what.”
Kellerika finished up her workout on the elliptical and blotted her face on a towel. Her cell vibrated toward the edge of the kitchen counter. She took lengthy strides across the hall. “Hello?”
“Kellerika dear.” It was Stazia. “How are you feeling?”
She ran a glass under the water dispenser on her fridge. “Better. Just finished a workout.”
Her boss laughed. “Sounds like your back to your usual self.”
“I think so.” Kell downed half of the tumbler in one gulp.
“Feeling up to another assignment?”
Kellerika topped off her glass and sat down in a chair at the table. “Sure.”
“I got an email yesterday from one of our churches in Eastern Europe,” Stazia said. “They need our help.”
Kell ran the outside of the glass against her forehead. “That’s near my neck of the woods.”
Stazia chuckled. “I know. I thought you might like to take the opportunity to visit your family for a bit.”
Kellerika propped her elbows on the tabletop. “Where’s the assignment?”
“Ukraine,” Stazia said. “I’ll put you in touch with our contact there, Father Andrei. A sharp man. You two should hit it off.”
Kell took another swig. “You think one of ours is behind this?”
An affirmative hum from Stazia. “Most certainly. I can’t say for sure if the activity itself is one of the Nine, but it has to be tied in somehow.” An uncomfortable pause. “You sure you’re up for it?”
“I’m sure.” Kellerika stretched her sore back.
“Excellent.” A keyboard clacked on Stazia’s end. “I’ll book your flights and accommodations. Your first flight,” the clacking ceased, “will give you a couple of days at home before going on to Ukraine.” A couple of mouse clicks. “Sound fair?”
“Thanks, Stazia.” She got up and lumbered toward the shower. “Sounds great. I’ll touch base once I’ve met up with Father Andrei.”
“Sounds fine,” Stazia said. “The tickets and itineraries will be on the usual site.”
Jet lag was hell. Getting back to Tampere, Finland proved a gargantuan hassle. Kellerika came minutes from missing her connection in Amsterdam because of a crotchety customs clerk who, she believed, was jealous of her in some way. At first, the Finnish crew thought they’d lost her luggage. Once located, Kellerika grabbed her bags and met her mom and dad near the front of the airport.
“Oh, my angel’s home.” Camilla wrapped her in a tight hug. “Thank god.”
After her mom turned her loose, Kell faced her dad. Alvar was less that ecstatic, but took his only child in a warm embrace.
“It’s so great to see you again, love.” He rubbed her shoulders. “Here,” he bent down and took her bags, “let me get those.”
The car ride home went on with little fanfare. They caught up on what Kell had been doing and the fictitious law firm conference that had brought her out this way again.
“Boring legal stuff, mom,” Kell had said. “Nothing worth repeating.”
Once at home, Kellerika helped her father with the luggage into her childhood bedroom. Not much had changed since she left at the end of her sophomore year for the foreign exchange program in the United States. A gold bed cover. Lace curtains on a brass rod. The antique writing desk in the corner that had been passed down to her from her grandmother. Same as before.
Alvar rested the larger of her suitcases on the chair at her desk. “There you are.” He stopped in the doorway. “It’s great to have you back, bear.”
She managed a brief grin. “Thanks, papa.”
A shower and a sound night’s sleep cut the anchor of the time change
from her neck. A bright sun greeted Kell at her window.
“Not too much unlike the suburbs in Maryland. Just a lot more pine trees.”
She got dressed and wandered downstairs. Her mom hovered over the stove, pulling together some omelets.
“Morning, mom.” Its spicy steam reached her nostrils. “Smells great. What is it?”
Camilla scooped the finished product from her skillet. “A southwest omelet.” Kell’s elder spitting image searched her thoughts. “Is that what they call it?”
Kellerika giggled. “Yeah.”
Her mom set the platter on the table. “Thought it might be something fun and different.” She poured eggs in to the skillet. “Besides, your father likes spicy things.”
Kell stuffed a bite into her maw. “Where is he anyway?”
Her mother rose on her tiptoes and looked into their quarter-acre backyard. “Still out in the garden.” She waved him in for breakfast. “There. He’s coming.”
“I didn’t mean---”
Camilla cut her off. “Nonsense. He was just weeding the tomatoes.”
Alvar ambled in the backdoor. “Ah! Good morning, girls.” His hawk-like nose searched the air. “Something smells amazing.”
Camilla put a plate on the table for him. “Southwest omelets.” She got her breakfast and joined them. “Very spicy. You’ll love it.”
Kell’s dad kicked off his shoes and washed up at the sink. He turned and froze. “Such a wonderful sight.”
Her mom forced back some tears as Alvar poured himself a cup of coffee and settled in for the meal.
“So,” Camilla forked in a bite, “tell me about what it is you do at your legal office.”
“There’s not much to tell, I’m afraid.” Kell took a sip of coffee.
Alvar grumbled under the brim of his own.
“Most of my days are spent filling out documents and filing them at the proper offices.” Kell cut off another bite.
Her dad took a drink and thumped his cup down.
“Something wrong, dear?” Camilla crossed her legs.
Alvar did his best to brush it off, but his wife pressed the matter.
“We keep no secrets in this family.” Her mom’s hazel eyes found Kellerika’s. She forced down a bitter mouthful of brew.
“Well,” Alvar said, “if you’re not going to let it go, then, yes.” He stuffed in another bite.
“Well.” Camilla lifted her cup. “Out with it.”
Kell’s head dropped. Oh, hell. She’s inviting chaos.
Her dad set his fork down. “It’s---it’s just that…”
Camilla sat in patient silence.
“I don’t think that you should’ve given up on your dreams at Georgetown.” A yoke of burden had been lifted. “There.”
Here we go. Kellerika did her best to hide behind her coffee.
“She can make decisions for herself, Alvar.”
He rested an elbow on the table. “I know, but that was her ticket to a better life.”
Kell’s blood percolated. “I’ve been living in one of the greatest countries on Earth, and doing well for myself, I might add.”
Her dad cut off another bite. “I know, bear. It’s not that I don’t think that.”
Camilla finished her bite. “Then, what?”
Alvar emphasized his words with a hand to the tabletop. “You had a full paid scholarship in medicine to one of the best universities in America.” His spirit deflated. “I wanted so much more for you than we ever had.”
“That’s the problem, dad.” Kell jabbed the tines of her fork into her remaining eggs. “Georgetown was what you wanted, not me.”
Her mom picked her cup up in both hands and coaxed a sip. “Did you ever bother asking our daughter what she wanted?”
Alvar sawed off another morsel. “Fine. Kellerika, what is it that you want? What do you want to do with the rest of your life?”
Kell tossed a nervous glance at her mother. Camilla bobbed her head of lengthy graying brown hair toward her husband.
“All right,” Kell said. “I’ve always wanted to be a professional chef. Ya know, like the ones in high-end restaurants.”
Her father mashed the bite of egg through a laugh. “A chef? They don’t make enough to live on! Not to mention, they work grueling hours to earn what they bring home.”
“Lots of chefs make fantastic money, dear.” Camilla’s raised brows suggested she had the upper hand in this chess match.
Alvar struggled for a counter. “I know, but---”
“It doesn’t matter.” Kellerika took the final bite of her omelet. “It’s what I want to do no matter how much I make.”
Her dad sat a gentle hand on hers. “I understand, love.” The fight had drained from his expression. He was outnumbered. “I want the very best for you. That’s all.”
Kell tossed back the last of her coffee and carried her dishes to the sink.
“Got plans?” Her mom joined her and took Kell’s cup.
Kellerika nodded. “Got in touch with Gretta last night.”
“No!” Her mom leaned away, astonished. “From primary school?”
Kell’s head bobbed. “We both happened to be back in town visiting our folks. So, she agreed to meet me in town for a while. Catch up.”
Camilla clasped her hands at her breast. “You two used to keep us up all night with your sleepovers.” She gave Kell a hug. “Tell our other daughter her momma and papa said, hello.”
Kell giggled into her mom’s neckline. “Of course, momma.” She broke their bond and checked her watch. “Crap. I’d better get going.” Her inquisitive eyes turned to her dad. “Can I?”
Alvar nodded. “Just be safe and fill it up on the way home.”
She swiped the Volvo keys from the bar and slid into her sneakers. “Call you guys later.”
Her mom’s voice trailed after her out the frond door. “Wear your seatbelt!”
As Kellerika pulled into a spot in front of the café, Gretta rose from her seat and waved an arm like a victory banner. Kell locked her dad’s car and trotted up to her childhood pal.
“Kell!” Gretta gripped her in a warm hug.
Kellerika kissed her on a cheek. “It’s been way too long, Grett.” She sat across from Gretta at a tall outdoor table. “What’s good this morning?”
Grett swiped a light blonde bang from her gray eyes. “Meh. Just sipping on a mocha.”
A server came up to their table. She fished a pad and pen from the pocket of her smock. “Morning. I’m Krys. What can I get you?”
Kell pointed to the mocha. “I’ll have one of those, please.”
Krys paused for a moment. “Anything to eat?”
“Just ate. Thanks.”
With a bob of her short dark bangs, Krys disappeared.
Kell propped a foot on the lower rung of her chair. “What have you been up to since we last talked?”
Gretta sipped her drink. “It has been a while, hasn’t it?” She raised her eyes to the trees overhead. “Well, I went to college. I’m working on my doctorate in Linguistics right now.”
“Holy shit, Gretta.” Kell smiled. “That’s fantastic!”
Grett’s eyes sparkled. “I’m engaged to a guy I met in Norway.”
Kell’s jaw dropped. “No, you’re not.”
“Haven’t set a date yet, but there’s no rush,” Gretta said.
“Nah,” Kellerika said. “Get that degree first.”
Gretta nursed her coffee in both hands. Even in the summertime, the wind coming off the lakes could get bitter. “So, tell me what you’ve been into for the last decade.”
Kell laced her fingers atop the uneven table. “Last ten years? Wow.” Her hazel gaze searched the clear morning blue. “Let’s see. I went to Georgetown University in America. Met a guy. Got engaged.”
“Hold on.” Grett coughed into her napkin. “Engaged? When’s the big day?”
Kellerika thanked Krys for the mocha. “Never. He broke it off and ran away with someone else.”
Her friend sat a hand on hers. “I’m so sorry.”
“No need to be.” Kell sipped her coffee. “After that, I dropped out of school and picked up a job as a paralegal at a law firm.” Gretta’s pity hit her like a runaway truck.
Grett drew her hand back. “I didn’t mean it like that.” She looked to the swirling bubbles in her mocha.
Kell hardened her resolve. “I don’t want anyone’s pity.” A fake grin. “I’m doing fine.”
They sat in an uncomfortable silence for a while, then Kell broke it. “I do have a new guy these days.”
Gretta took a drink. “Oh? Do tell.”
“Evan,” Kell said. “He’s great. Cute, nice, and courteous.”
Grett nodded in approval.
“Did I mention crazy cute?”
They shared a genuine laugh.
“What sort of legal stuff do you do?” Had her friend’s tone shifted? A hint of condescension?
Kell took a drink. “Boring stuff. Filling out contracts and the like. Filing them at the courthouse.” She spun her cup on the table. “That sort of thing.”
Gretta hummed through her last dregs. “Must keep you on your toes.”
Kell scoffed. “Hardly rocket science, but I suppose so.”
They sat in awkward quietude until Kell had finished her drink. A group of gulls squawked overhead on their path to the lake’s shore.
Kell got up and tossed her spent cup in the trash. “Well, it’s been great catching up with you.”
Gretta rose and gave her another hug. “It sure has. We should stay in touch.”
Kellerika smiled. Sure, kiddo. “Look me up on social media. I’m around.” She left the reunion feeling like she had been to a wake. The tiny corpse of Friendship Past had been buried six feet under, and its ghost still haunted the graveyard of the present.